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"Phantasmagoria" is the opening and most major poem that appeared in a collection of poems written by Lewis Carroll and published by Macmillan in London for the first time in 1869. The collection was published under both the title Rhyme? and Reason? and Phantasmagoria. It is Lewis Carroll's longest poem.


Rhyme? And Reason?

by Lewis Carroll

With Sixty-Five Illustrations by Arthur B. Frost

And Nine by Henry Holiday

Issued New York, 1884 by Macmillan and Co. pp. 214, 8 pp. publisher's catalog.

Publisher's red cloth, spine and front board gilt lettered. Engraved frontis with tissue guard, 74 illustrations throughout.

Published in 1869, Phantasmagoria was published by Macmillan and Co., London, the same publishers of the Alice books. The original edition has a blue cardboard cover with a gold embossed cover illustration and gold embossed edges and spine. Phantasmagoria is a narrative discussion written in seven cantos between a ghost (a Phantom) and a man named Tibbets. Carroll portrays the ghost as not so different from human beings. They may gibber and jangle their chains, but they, like us, simply have a job to do and that job is to haunt.

Just as in our society, in ghost society there is a hierarchy and ghosts (for there are different orders of ghosts, he tells the narrator) are answerable to the King who must be addressed as “Your Royal Whiteness.” There is even a Knight Mayor, whose job it is to give you “nightmares” (of course) and if you don’t know him, the Phantom tells us, “Either you never go to bed, / Or you’ve a grand digestion!” Lastly, there is Inspector Kobold whose bones became cold and he caught a “sort of chill”. After that, Inspector Kobold can only quench his thirst and rid himself of his chill by visiting his hunting ground which happens to be inns where they serve port-wine; hence his name, the “Inn-Spectre”.

If any of the rules are not followed, ghosts are answerable to a higher authority for not following the ‘Maxims of Behaviour” (they must answer to the previously mentioned His Royal Whiteness).

The Phantom visitor here is a shy creature, white and wavy, and a little nervous. He has caught a cold, he says, “out there upon the landing” and when the narrator turns to look he sees, “A little ghost was standing!” It’s a one-ghost house, the little ghost tells us. Many ghosts can occupy a house, depending on the number of ghosts the house can accommodate. Some ghosts house more than one ghost, but this one is just for one.

Phantasmagoria is essentially a narrative in cantos about the Whys and Hows of ghosts and how they must live and how they like to live, for they do have, ironically, a life. Ghosts just are, and they are nothing to be feared although they do try to do their job so that if the “Victim” begins to snore, they have utterly failed (because they were ignored). But being a ghost is a job like any other job, the Phantom tells him, recounting the little pay and the hard work involved.

Ghosts, our Phantom tells the narrator, fear the same things that we often fear, only sometimes it is the reverse (note that Carroll also liked to reverse things in his books and also was keen on mirror-writing; backward writing and was very adept at it). As the ghost tells us about the play between reversals;

“Allow me to remark
That ghosts has just as good a right,
In every way to fear the light,
As men to fear the dark.”

The Cantos

Phantasmagoria is divided into seven cantos which are named:

Canto 1. The Trysting
Canto 2. Hys Fyve Rules
Canto 3. Scarmoges
Canto 4. Hys Nouryture
Canto 5. Byckerment
Canto 6. Dyscomfyture
Canto 7. Sad Souvenaunce

A run through the cantos of Phantasmagoria and a brief description of each.

Canto 1. The Trysting

The Trysting is the meeting between the ghost and the narrator in which they become acquainted. The narrator invites the ghost in, seeing only a shivering figure in dimly lit room. Through the cordial exchange and disarming candor, the narrators apprehensions are allayed. The narrator's hospitality is appreciated by the ghost, and a conversation ensues.

Canto 2. Hys Fyve Rules

Here is the mention of the Rules of Etiquette for Ghosts. Ghosts, like many of Carroll’s characters tend to speak in riddles, even when they seem to be direct (for this ghost seems quite direct and to the point).

Rule 1

Let the “Victim” begin the conversation (“No ghost of any common sense/Begins a conversation.”) p. 12 If asked how he came here, the answer should be honest, but the ghost says, “Just as you please my little dear.” (italic whole line) Should the “Victim” (all hauntees are referred to as “victims”) take no heed, then the ghost tells him, “You’ll know the things a failure…” (12) If the victim is with friends, the ghost tells him, then one might get attention by “picking up some candle-ends…”

Rule 2

Burn a blue or crimson light and then scratch the door or walls. (14)

Rule 3

Protect the interests of the Victim

“To treat him with grave respect,
And not to contradict him.”

Of course, the narrator says that some ghosts do forget the third rule, to which the ghost suggests that perhaps “you first transgressed,” and treated the ghost rudely without proper “cordiality” and the ghost must never be approached with a hatchet! If this is done, then all bets are off and the king, His Royal Whiteness, permits the ghost a formal parleying. More, a ghost should never be addressed as a “thing.” Clearly Carrolls’ ghosts certainly have intensity of feeling and are strong in their convictions.

Rule 4

Ghosts must not trespass where other ghosts are living (quartered) and must “instantly be slaughtered” (unless they have a pardon from the king)… but the ghost tells our narrator that ghosts are simply small bits cut up that then re-unite to form the whole – particles clinging together;

The process scarcely hurts at all,
Not more than when you’re what you call
‘Cut up’ by a Review.

Rule 5

The king must be addressed as “Sir” and “Your Royal Whiteness” (17). There are different classes or categories of ghosts – Elves, Spectres, Goblins, and more and all have a specific hierarchy, with Elves being “stupid company, you know, For any but themselves.” (19) After reciting his maxims, the ghost is thirsty and requests a glass of beer.

Canto 3. Scarmoges

Inspector Kobold of the Spectre order who dresses in a yellow gown, a crimson vest, and a nightcap with a border (direct quote from Who dresses….) Inspector Kobold has a great thirst that can only be quenched by port-wine (which he compares to nectar) and the Kobold spends his time at inns where port is served and is thus known as the “Inn-Spectre” (21) The ghost, while speaking to the narrator, is full of opinions. The occupants house is “neither snug nor spacious” (23), the window is too narrow and built by someone who likely, “pinned his faith on Ruskin.” (23)

By now, after the ghost has inquired about his occupants’ cigars the narrator has had it now with such easy familiarity and growls about the cost of the cigars;

“No matter what they are!
You’re getting as familiar
As if you were my cousin!” (24)

The ghost continues telling his story…

Canto 4. Hys Nouryture

In Canto IV, the ghost makes a reference to Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, which Carroll had parodied as a young child in his “Guida di Braggia” and more, in many of Carroll’s books and stories he has his characters moving about on trains – such as Alice in Through the Looking Glass who travels by rail to get to the third square.

“Oh, when I was a little Ghost,
A merry time had we!
Each seated on his favorite post,
We Chumped and chawed the buttered toast
They gave us for our tea.”
That story is in print! I cried
Don’t say it’s not, because
It’s known as Bradshsaw’s Guide!”
(The Ghost uneasily replied
he hardly thought it was).

Hailing from a long line of ghosts and of the order, the Phantom tells his family tree as such: His father was a Brownie; his mother was a Fairy. The children were of different stripe – there was a Pixy, two Fays, a Banshee, a Fetch and a Kelpie, a Poltergeist and a Ghoul, two Trolls (“which broke the rule”), a Goblin and a Double, then an Elf, a Phantom, and finally, a Leprechaun.

No Spectres, although he notes that when he was a young Phantom some Spectres did call on the family and were “Dressed in the usual white.” (29) Spectres are the “ghost-nobility” and look upon the rest of the ghost species with disdain and “scorn” The ghost informs us of the ways of ghosts; it’s old-fashioned to groan, and instead now there is the trendier and more popular and fashionable squeak (awful squeak, the narrator tells us, that chills him to the bone.) p. 31 but if that’s hard, the ghost tells the narrator, just try “gibbering” – “that’s something like a job.” (31)

Shakespeare’s* ghosts who “gibbered in the Roman streets…they must have found it cold.” (32) It’s not easy being a ghost, he tells us;

“For instance, take a haunted tower,
With skull, cross-bones, and sheet;
Blue lights to burn (say) two an hour,
Condensing lens of extra power,
And set of chains complete:
What with the things you have to hire –
The fitting on the robe –
And testing of the colored fire –
The outfit of itself would tire
The patience of a Job.” (p.33)

There is a Haunted House Committee who oversee and seem to make a fuss over the slightest thing, including if a ghost should happen to be French; dialects are “objected to” including the Irish brogue…(34)

Canto 5. Byckerment

but aren’t victims consulted about their particular ghost, the narrator asks. “Not a bit!” imagine, he tells us, what it would take to satisfy a single child (quote that), “There’d be no end to it!” (35)

but if it’s “not a well-mannered ghost,

Then you can have him changed.” (36)

making houses draughfty (drafty?) lots of things to do “To let the wind come whistling through -.” (38) which is called “trimming and beautifying” (38) to make the premises “ghost ready” –

The Knight-Mayor features in this book, another clever play on words – and from the Knight Mayor (whose duties are to pinch and poke and squeeze them til they nearly choke”) the ghost also takes direction. When the narrator says he doesn’t know the Knight-Mayor the ghost tells him, “Either you never go to bed,/Or you’ve got a grand digestion.”(39) *it is or was believed that indigestion could or can cause nightmares. Many people believe this.The Mayor, of course, was “knighted” by the King.

Canto 6. Dyscomfyture

the ghost discovers he has the wrong house and is not at Tibbs’ house but Tibbetts’, which makes the Phantom very angry and he tells our narrator, Tibbetts,

“Why couldn’t you have told me so
Three quarters of an hour ago?
You king of all the asses!” (48)

so after all of this discussion, the Phantom feels has he wasted his time in the wrong house, but it all ends well with the two shaking hands (he calls Tibbett “Turnip-top”) He says a Sprite may be sent instead and gives him advice on how to manage the sprite (rap him on the knuckles) to keep in in-line when he is not.

Canto 7. Sad Souvenaunce

The Phantom leaves (favorite phantom) and nothing can bring him back which leaves he narrator weeping…so he makes himself a drink and sings a “Coronach”

“And art thou gone, beloved ghost?
Best of all familiars!
Nay, then, farewell, my duckling roast,
Farewell, Farewell, my tea and toast,
My meerschaum and cigars!”

Original Publication

Phantasmagoria by Lewis Carroll Macmillan and Co., London First edition, 1869 (Morgan Special Collections edition) Blue cardboard cover with gold embossed cover illustration and edges and spine. Bound by Burn & Co., Kirby Street, E.C.

The poem appeared in the collection with several other poems:

  • Echoes
  • A Sea Dirge
  • Ye Carpette Knyghte
  • Hiawatha's Photographing
  • Melancholetta
  • A Valentine
  • The Three Voices
  • Tema Con Variazioni
  • A Game of Fives
  • Poeta Fit, non Nascitur
  • Size and Tears
  • Atalanta in Camden-Town
  • The Lang Coortin'
  • Four Riddles
  • Fame's Penny Trumpet

Cover illustrations on the original book (Morgan Library copy) represent the Crab Nebula in Tauras and Donah’s Comet, “Two distinguished members of the Celestial Phantasmagoria.”